How Do Decisions Ever Get Made?

15 August 2019

Sometimes you will be faced with hard choices: which few classes to take in your very last term in college; whether to accrue debt to pursue a professional degree; whether to have children. These choices can be hard because of a great number of options, the difficulty of comparing them, or limitations on your information. They’re extra painful when stakes are high. It’s pretty amazing that such difficult decisions get made at all. 


From one perspective, though, these decisions aren’t special. This perspective makes all decisions look amazing, even the ‘easy’ ones. This is a wacky consequence of an otherwise intuitive philosophical perspective on decisions. This perspective says that decisions are just verdicts about the balance of all the reasons for and against a choice. It makes all decision-making look amazing because there are a mind-boggling number of reasons for and against any decision at all—and it’s really hard to compare them.


Here’s an example. Say you’re at the store, deciding which of two laundry detergents to buy. Detergent A costs $9.50, and Detergent B costs $10, for the same size. So you have a reason to buy A, since it’s cheaper. But you really prefer the scent of B on your clothes, so you have a reason to buy B. But A makes your sheets a little crunchy. Then again, B uses more ethical manufacturing methods. A is better for the environment. B’s loyalty program gives you a coupon every ten times you buy. A is the detergent that all your friends use. B reminds you of your grandpa’s house. The list goes on and on.


Every choice you make sits in an intricate web of reasons just like this one. There are an immense number of reasons for and against any choice, and it’s difficult to weigh them against one another. But that’s not to say we take them all into account when deliberating. Doing that would be bonkers. It would require immense amounts of research and time-consuming calculation that we don’t usually do in deliberation.


(Here, notice, I am assuming realism about objective reasons: there are reasons for and against choices, and these reasons exist whether or not you yourself know about them.)


If we don’t deliberate in this ridiculously complex way, though, what do we do? Usually we don’t try to take into account every single reason for and against a choice. We have simple rules of thumb, local tricks and heuristics that get us to choose faster. 


For example, you can simply buy the breakfast cereal you enjoy the most (ignoring, for example, the impact on the climate), or you can watch the movie your guest most wants to watch (ignoring the price of renting this movie or another). 


Even sophisticated recommendations about how to make difficult decisions are essentially better heuristics for making choices. Nobody recommends that you look at all the reasons you can. It’s overwhelming, inefficient, and seems totally unnecessary. 


But this creates a philosophical problem. We make decisions all the time, but we don’t make verdicts on the balance of all the reasons there are. That means that the intuitive theory—the one that says decisions are verdicts on the balance of all the reasons for and against a choice—has to be wrong. 


It’s frustrating that this intuitive theory is wrong, because it gets one key point right. To see why, we need to see that decisions—whatever else they happen to be—are certainly commitments to doing things. When you decide, you close off alternatives, and decline to deliberate any more. When you’ve decided, but you don’t do what you’ve decided, something has gone wrong: either you’re irrational, or you’ve lost track. In the normal case, you do what you decide to do. 


The intuitive theory, implausible as it is, helps make good sense of these commitments. It makes sense to shut down other options, and end deliberation, if you take yourself to have picked the best option, upon considering the balance of all the reasons there are


Now we’ve rejected the intuitive theory, we need another way of explaining the commitment aspect of a decision. If you decide something based on quick and easy heuristics, why does your commitment make sense—even to you? Why feel the pull of your commitment at all, if you just used this quick and dirty trick to make this choice? 


Here’s a tempting answer: you feel the pull because you’d already decided that using this heuristic is the way to make this choice. For instance, you’d already decided that picking the yummiest breakfast cereal is the way to decide on a cereal.


That seems to get something right, but an infinite regress threatens. We can simply ask: how did you decide that this was the way to make this choice? That’s a decision too, and it needs an explanation if the original decision needs an explanation.


Any philosopher must admit that our quick everyday choices—our choices of laundry detergent, breakfast cereal, or movies—count as decisions. But it’s not clear how we ever commit to such choices. And it’s not clear how we ever got to make decisions in the first place in such quick and easy ways, disregarding so much in the name of efficiency. How did we ever decide to make decisions in this way?  

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 16, 2019 -- 11:19 AM

Decision making IS hard work.

Decision making IS hard work. I remember and still chuckle at the joke about how the camel came to be. There was to be discussion and action on creation of the horse. It was proposed that a committee be convened to tackle the task. And, so the story goes, this is how we acquired the camel. Decisions require sound thinking and actions based on best-case outcomes. But, everyone wants a piece of the pie or slice of the cake, based on his/her own vested interests. Settling on compromise, as often must be done, guarantees someone wins and someone loses: this almost universally assures a less-than-best-case outcome. We can always create a camel; it is damnably tough to arrive at a horse.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 23, 2019 -- 11:18 AM

Another thought Julian Jaynes

Another thought: Julian Jaynes' book on the origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the BICAMERAL mind talks a lot about the indecisiveness of primitive humans and the notion that they needed 'voices; gods; oracles' and the like to tell them what to do. I took that a bridge further by remarking that early humans were pre-higher order conscious because they were not particularly introspective. Nor sympathetic. Nor compassionate. Added to those deficits, we might note they were also superstitious; ignorant and parochial. We have come a long way, baby. yet we remain hampered by the parochialism of our personal interests. Since there are at least three ways of doing anything: yours; mine; and the right one, it seems futile to assign decision making to groups of two or more. Yet this we do; must do; and probably shall always do, because there is no way to meet the needs of the masses by foisting upon them the will of an individual. Such attempts meet failure on every level and in every system, be it economic; social; religious or what-have-you. We're all 'just trying to get used to it'.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 -- 7:31 AM

Decision-making, when it DOES

Decision-making, when it DOES happen on an individual basis, necessarily requires Leadership acumen. Granted, this is limited in most settings involving political, economic, social and religious considerations. Anyway, for the record, I have penned a small philosophical synopsis on the matter of leadership, applicable I think to many current affairs:

Leadership is retrospective, prospective and introspective. Anyone vested (or entrusted) with such agency must act in consideration of that which has been done before; weigh the potential consequences of what may be done now; and think carefully upon conceivable outcomes before implementing a course of action. Woefully, there have been bad as well as good leaders, or more precisely, those who led and those who did not. From the onset, we cannot be certain of which we are getting. Oh, that there might be a clearer pathway?

It seems to me we are in the midst of a growing deficit: bad decisions far outnumber good ones, on both personal and societal levels. I do not pretend to know why this is so, but the evidences are pretty convincing. One might blame our apparent lack of good judgment, but this begs the further question: when/why/where/how did this human capacity diminish? Well, those are, technically, four questions, I guess. There is much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth right now---a lot like during previous generations, so, what has truly changed?...more than we can ever know, or less than we think? These questions have no easy or obvious answers---or do they?